Thursday, July 31, 2014

Forty-First Beginning – The Buddy System 04

[Same story, alternate beginning.  Or, perhaps, another chapter.]

Next beginning. 

Guscodus decided that he would explore this town, backwards as it was and annoyed as he was with the boy and his bird.  He was a fine, sleek cat and a credit to any traveling party.  He was clever and swift and even if it was completely understandable for him to be angry at the position he had been placed in and the people whose stupidity had placed him there, even if he had stalked off into the night, leaving his navigator, his leash holder, his ruler behind, even so:  he could still scout out this town that they had been approaching and use his nimble wits to learn of its opportunities and dangers, bringing the information back to lay at his master’s feet, like a still warm and only half-eaten rat.  The boy would be grateful and impressed.
Tail twitching as he marched back through his thoughts, Guscodus concurred with himself and, stretching slowly and thoroughly, rose to begin his search. He would have to come up with a name for the boy, interim though their relationship was. It made thinking cluttered if he had to bat around for a title each time.

Master was dead out. Master wasn't even twitching and bleeding, it was too dead to consider batting around in boredom. Gus had had three Masters in his time and this temporary place holder of a boy was no Master.

Navigator wasn't bad. Or wouldn't be if the boy had any clue where he was going. Servant was too condescending, even for him. Leash holder came close but was too long and implied more control than the boy had. Handler made him sound like a common animal and manager made him sound like a human.

Gus padded in fits and starts along the roofs, fitting the tempo of his travel to the changing terrain. Herder was not to be considered. No cat could be herded.

Runner, perhaps. Runner had possibilities. Words regarding business or human relationships, such as friend, never entered his feline mind. Neither did words like Provider or Keeper.

Runner would do, he supposed. He would try it and see how it worked. Gus twitched his tail and paused before leaping onto what might prove to be the tallest roof within the city walls. It still annoyed him that the boy saw him as only a tag end to his difficulties.

Gus had been angry with the boy for other, larger things at the beginning. But, trouper that he was, he had eventually put those behind him. He was prepared, now, to see the whole thing as an unfortunate horror that they'd both have to deal with. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Forty-First Beginning – The Buddy System 03

The strangers wore well oiled leather, chain, and plate armor, in various combinations.  From the entrance they looked to be three men and one woman, but Nevvic knew that such assessments could shift when a boy got closer.  He looked around to see if he could see any excuse to talk to the strangers.  Gripper wasn't in sight and the regular morning folk were circled around a dice and cup game.  From appearances, it was a rare contest.  Not a glance was spared for the unknown foursome.

"Ho, boy!  You from the woods?"

That was a surprise. No need to consider tactics, now.

"Yes, good traveler.  My folk make charcoal in the woods."

"See, Arthetor.  All we needed to do was stop hurrying.  Come, boy and sit.  We have some questions.  We travel in search of dragons."

The speaker kicked a stool out from under the table and nodded toward it.  He was tall and rangy, his armor was hardened leather plates, each the size of a hand or larger, the plates grommeted with metal and bound together with chains.  He wore a metal cap helm, tied under his chin with leather, and a bearskin cape.  His hair and beard were clean and blond and intricately braided, but his feet were protected by nothing more than old rope sandals.

Navvic hurried to sit before the man could change his mind, before his companions could object.

"I'm afraid we have no dragons in the woods, farer.  Or, rather, I'm not afraid in the woods because there are no dragons there.

The leaves are dense and the beasts can't see through.  The branches reach wide and intertangle.  Certain, one could get through, if it had a reason, but none has fixed on a reason for as long as my uncle has lived and longer."

"None has landed near the edge and galloped through, under the branches?"  Brennus pushed a dish with sections of grilled sausage toward Nevvic.  Nevvic nodded and took one, gratefully.  Sausage was a rare treat.

"At the edges, where the trees are scant, there are thick brambles.  Perhaps they cannot pierce a dragon's hide, but they block sight as well as the leaves of the treetops. 

Oh, and my folk, when they build a mound, making charcoal, they remind each other not to stay close to the mound longer than necessary, once the fire is going.  Mayhap past dragons have dived through treetops and mound crown, following the smell of fire, and gotten naught but buried, banked fire for their efforts."

There were other things that Nevvic's folk did to avoid drawing dragons, but this portion he was allowed to tell.  For it was a rumor and a guess, and not something known certain.

"Do you stay always in the woods, boy?" Said the one called Arthetor.  This one was coiffed so that only the cloth-wrapped tail of his hair could be seen, running a small way down his back.  His armor was plate, and well pieced.  His helm, on the table, was more elaborate than Nevvic had ever seen.  A glance down showed that his boots were thick leather with strips of metal riveted on in rising stripes.

It was hard to guess the true size of his body under it all.  But he was obviously bigger than most men.

"No, farer.  Today I'll be ranging upslope, to see if salmon have started in any of the streams."

"They come up this far?"  This man was short and slim.  His wiry, greying hair had been cropped off in a flat line just above his chin.  His wispy beard had been similarly cropped just below his chin.  There was a thick leather cap with ear flaps on the table near him.  He wore a red leather vest and robes that obscured his feet and hands. He made a gesture showing that Nevvic could finish the sausage, if he wished.

"Oh, yes, farer.  The ones that spawn near flat places draw bears, but the ones that leap the falls into narrow breaks in the cliffs can be harvested safely."

"The cliffs up ahead?  They go as far as that?"

"Not every year, farer, but most.  Whether any can top the cliffs and go beyond is a thing argued about constantly.  Some farers have spoken of fish like salmon, but striped, that live in lakes high up the mountain.  But the lakes have no leaving streams, so if they are salmon, they can nevermore reach the sea."

"We are being rude," said the woman.  She wore chain to her knees, with plate strapped to her forearms, neck, and shins.  Strapped to her chest by chain around her neck and back was . . . Something round that glowed.  She, also, had a helm on the table and her hair was loose and pale brown around her shoulders.  "My name is Sechlainn, follower or Cardijahn, she who blesses mortals and strengthens them to slay dragons.  Her aim is to free the land of their terror.

"This clansman," she indicated the tall, blond man, "is Brennus Conchobar.  The second name is his clan name.

You heard Arthetor's name.  He is from the spire.  That is Limmidocious.  He's a wizard. His sort usually don't travel with my sort.  I see his pledge to our quest as a milestone and a turning point. Men have long cooperated against dragons.  We have successfully protected our homes and fields and flocks.  Now we are joining to take the worms' nests."

Nevvic looked down at the table, reddening.  Limmidocious spoke. 

"Folk in these mountains think it unlucky to give their birth names to . . . Well, to anyone not close family.  He'll have a cognomen, a thing that he's called by folk in general. 

We won't be angered if you give us that, boy.  Custom is custom."

"I'm called Charnevvic, farers."

"Nevvic being local for nephew.  Is char associated with making charcoal?"

"Yes, farer.  I live with my uncle, and he's called Char, for the charcoal."

"And do you have any further information about dragons, Charnevvic?  Beyond the news that they leave the woods alone and that they leave the salmon to the bears?"

"Well, one will take a bear from time to time, when the bears come into the flat to swat salmon.  And there's a rumor that they come and scratch their backs on the side or the edge of the cliff."

He fished into his pouch, fumbling out a ragged, translucent curve of something.  He handed it to Sechlainn. 

"Folk call those dragon scales.  That's not a good one.  Good ones look like they're maybe a scale.  Folk make combs of them.

It may be just a story, of course.  No one here goes looking for dragons.  Maybe you know.  . .?"

Sechlainn handed the flat lump to Limmidocious.  He examined it with a show of thought and care.

"I can't swear on relics, but I don't know what else it could be.  This has tumbled in a stream, hasn't it?"

"Yes, farer.  The closest to the cliff these are found, the nicer they usually are.  But they're found in all the streams.  If they were only found in a few, we'd have sent word to the sages and mayors, asking if that meant there was a nest or lair up in the cliffs. 

If they were found often, we'd have sent to ask if there were many dragons laired up beyond the cliffs.  But they only get found a few a year, and they come from every stream.  So maybe two fought, up over the cliff, and they raked scales off of each other, and those work their way down with the rains.  Or maybe one dragon died and animals fought over the carcass, spreading bits around.  Or maybe something big ate it, or many big things did, and they couldn't digest the scales, so . . ."

Brennus cut the speculation short with heartfelt laughter.  He slapped the table and wiped a tear from his eye.  The others were pulled by his joy to chuckle, or at least smile, along with him. 

"Limmoc, he ponders just like you do.  Crap sprayed on cliffs with dragon scales in it like corn in a road apple?"  He threw back his head and roared his delight.

"That would make quite a learned dissertation,"said Arthetor, with forced solemnity.  "The plebes of all the orders would pack the halls."

"You speak truly, Arth, though you jest.  It would be a significant knowing if I could prove it.  I would be duty bound to report it as widely as possible.

Although for the first declamation in hall, I'd use obscure enough language that the plebes wouldn't know I was talking about scat . . .

. . . So the hall would be packed with journeymuni, instead."

At that all three men laughed.  Sechlainn shook her head, one hand tracing a design inside the glow on her chest.  She was smiling, but Nevvic got the feeling that she was seeking after something besides the gathering of information about how dragons fit into the world.  She wanted only their location, and she felt this could be found best by questing and heeding her glow.

"Is it true that Cardejahn is a new goddess?"  Nevvic was surprised to find that he'd asked the question.  A person's god was more personal than a person's name.

"She is not new, but her power has increased and her purpose has changed and hardened recently.  The land suffers from dragons.  People are willing to pledge themselves to be her hand as she strikes them."

Now the three men looked at the table.  Sechlainn plainly wished to say more, but forbore.  Continuing would not be courteous to her fellow farers.  Nevvic asked no more.  The folk at the other table did not appear to be listening.  That made this news his.  He could maybe get a cup of ale, some other day, telling about the armored strangers.   

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Fifty-Fifth Beginning: Hersent

I blame it all on the garage sale.  Not that this is in any way a reasonable thing to do, beyond the fact that doing so has saved me several hundred dollars in the last year, but I do so anyway.  Who or what else do I have to blame?  Myself?  That would hardly be spiritually uplifting.  The woman at the perfume counter?  I’m not sure I truly believe she existed.  And if she did or does, I’m not sure that I blame her, both because she suffered from severe extenuations and because, well, if I’m honest with myself, because I rather enjoyed the ride.  So the garage sale gets the blame.

Nasty things, garage sales.  I bought the book at a garage sale – for a quarter – L.L. F by X.  It had been published in French, in 1954, and it was sort of a history book on the French Middle Ages.  At least I think that’s what it is.  My high school French classes were longer ago than I’d care to admit.  I later bought a cheap French/English dictionary, but I’ve only translated the Table of Contents, part of the Introduction, the beginning paragraph of each Chapter, and a ballade.

If I remember correctly, at the time of The Incident I could play “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “Aura Lee,” and “This Old Man,” courtesy of the YY.  I was still working on “Give a Little Whistle,” though, which was more challenging.

You may note that I’m referring to books a lot.  That’s because I’m the sort of person who refers to books a lot.  I’m also a person who carts books about, takes them home, and slaps cute little stickers on them that say: “Ex Libris – Beth Sharpwater.”  Other people, in conversation, say: “that reminds me of the time that I . . . “.  I’m more likely to chime in with: “you know, that reminds me of an article that I read . . . “.  Hauling too many books back from the library is my biggest vice and main source of exercise. Hauling them from garage sales used to compete, but I have, as mentioned, forsaken garage sailing as a token of disapproval.

Not that I couldn’t just as easily blame The Incident on my job.  Well, on my work, to be picky, since it comes and goes too often to be anything as steady as a job.  My main advertising (a newspaper ad and some fliers) claims that I am a freelance technical writer, editor, and proofreader.  I do this while I am trying To Write, despite a degree in a better paying field which shall remain nameless.  Both of these endeavors are actually supported by stints of temporary office work (I have great word processing skills) and by pregrading class reports for the local junior college crowd.

Young hopefuls that somehow failed to learn to wield the English Language in high school are recent immigrants give me their class papers a week before they’re due and I mark them up.  I’m brutal.  I mark every mistake and comment on every deficiency.  I get out my little red pen and make the pages bleed.  A lot of people can’t handle it.  The ones who can go on to get C’s and B’s that they wouldn’t have otherwise gotten just by making the corrections.  If they address the deficiencies as well, they get A’s.  Some of them even learn to write, after a few quarters. 

But it’s poorly paid work that comes in batches.  It’s like catching salmon commercially.  You work ‘til you drop while the papers are running.  The papers had been running just before The Incident, so I was a little groggy at the perfume counter.

Since I was a little groggy at the perfume counter because of my job (with the running pages), maybe I’m being too harsh on the garage sales.  But that silly, unreadable book sent me on a French Middle Ages binge.  Yes, I confess.  I’m a binge reader.  Ask any relative waiting for me to live up to my potential.  I waste countless unbillable hours looking up subjects in which no sane (that is, no billing) person would have an interest. 

So I learned about the lays of Arthur and the Song of Roland.  I learned about the Roman de la Rosa and the branches of Perrot’s animal tales.  I have no proof, but I am certain that this immersion left me with a weakness, a small vulnerability which the nonexistent woman at the perfume counter used to her advantage. 

Since I was, as maintained, a little groggy at the perfume counter, I can’t say that I noticed any portents of foreboding or even anything out of place.  I was just passing through on my way to drown my sorrows in the purchase of some hideously flashy socks, when a smiling perfume lady spritzed me.  At least I assume she was smiling.  They always do, don’t they?  As I blinked in a cloud of cinnamon and ginger underlain with a musky, animal aroma, she thrust a clipboard at me.  On it was a sheet of paper with one word: Hersent.

Being groggy with editing and a little miffed at suffering a delay in sock acquisition gratification, I whipped out my trusty red pen and added the caret, pound sign, caret, C that would correct the run-on word into: Her scent.

The woman was definitely smiling when I handed the clipboard back to her.  I wondered for a moment at the size of her golden eyes before I was blinded by a second spritz.  This one was piercingly ammoniacal, sending me coughing and wheezing and rubbing my eyes. 

“Come, my lady,” said a silken, chiding voice.  “There must be no further delay.  The charges of your husband must be answered in open court.”

A warm, firm hand propelled me forward by my shoulders, though I balked, wiping at my eyes. 

“Come, now, no false tears.  Make yourself presentable and attend with all speed and courtesy.”

A cloth was pressed into my hand and I mopped gratefully with it, blowing my nose for good measure.  What I saw when my eyes cleared sent me limp and staring.  Gone was the perfume lady, gone the perfume counter, and gone as well was the department store and the mall and city to which it had been attached. 

I was in a meadow, a wood, a castle.  Or, rather, I was in a piecework combination of the three.  Pushing me along with the pretense of following me meekly, was a nun whose appearance shocked me docile.  Disbelievingly, I floated where I was led.

We turned into a clearing, a courtyard, a hall, filled with persons in full medieval regalia.  Note that I didn’t say people.  Like the location, the wearers of these fine clothes seemed, like the nun behind me, to be several things simultaneously.  They were human and they were also animals – some of them very small animals – and they were also a combination of the two, all at once.

I looked down at my own hands to give my eyes a stable focus and saw a fine, white lady’s hands, complete with gold rings, together with furred hands and a pair of wolf’s paws.  Beyond my shifting extremities, my skirt was stiff with gold embroidery over a lithe, graceful part-woman’s form.

Vertigo and a buzzing in my ears drowned out the beginning of the proceeding that began around me.  I was led forward to stand beside a surly looking Wolf/Lord.  This lord ignored me and stood forward to bow before a King/Lion.  Words were exchanged, but the only ones I heard were “rise Sir Isengrin.” 

Isengrin.  The name was familiar and, more, brought to mind a vague connection with the word: Hersent.

Isengrin rose and drew himself up to declaim.

“My beloved and great lord, grant me justice against Reynard for his adultery with my wife, the Lady Hersent . . . “

Reynard!  If there was one medieval character that I disliked, it was Reynard.  Reynard the Fox was not only the nemesis of Isengrin the Wolf, he was a vicious, mocking trickster who played bloody tricks on the other animals just because he couldn’t leave their gullibility alone.

Hersent, if I remembered right, had originally welcomed Reynard’s advances until he had beaten and peed on her children, at which point she had tried to drive him off.  He had tricked her into chasing him through too tight a burrow hole and then . . .

But Isengrin accused his wife of adultery because of Reynard’s lying boasts and Hersent, believing, lawyerlike, in her technical innocence argued that nothing at all had happened beyond Reynard’s lies and her husband’s jealousy.  Fortunately, Reynard refused to come to court and, barring extreme embarrassment, nothing happened to Lady Hersent. 

Lots of other animals were hurt trying to bring Reynard in, though.  Whatever happened, I was not going to enjoy it.  Even a department store perfume counter was better than this.

The revelation that there might be some sort of logic to what was happening had taken my attention away from the odd proceedings.  I refocused.  The nun/fox, I was sure, had never been in any of the stories.  And I wondered if there would be other discrepancies.

The King was regally dismissing the complaint “ . . . by so trivial a mischief.  Such a matter as this is certainly not worth discussing.”

Perhaps it would end here, I thought.  It hadn’t in the original story, however, and I suspected that Hersent, herself, would be here if she considered the matter to be dismissible.

A bear/man stood to argue the judgment.  He was different from the other . . . I could only think of them as characters.  Where the other shifting characters had human features of near perfect, youthful beauty, this beast was bald, middle-aged, and paunchy.  His face was not filled, like the others, with courtly irritation and self-regard.  His was an earnest and trusting face.

“You could say better than that, most noble lord.  All the kingdom assembled knows that Isengrin is not weak or timid.  He is well able to take such vengeance against Reynard as his anger and conscience demands.

Only his love for you, our honored liege, and for the peace you have proclaimed, prevents him from laying siege to Maupertius, whence Reynard has fled.  Send to Maupertius, my lord.  I will go myself, if you wish it.  Summon Reynard to court.  As you are a prince of this earth, judge and make peace between your lords and so bring this feud to an end.”

An handsome young bull/man shouldered up.

“Lord Bruin, how can you suggest that our lord involve himself in so tawdry a matter?  Reynard has committed so many misdeeds that it is a ool indeed to trusts him or stands for him in court.  How could we reach a judgment?  If it were my wife he had touched, no fortress walls in this world would hold me from castrating him and casting him, writhing, in the mire.  How could you so soil yourself, Hersent?”

My blush came as a delayed reaction.  They expected me to be involved with this.  I didn’t feel involved.  I felt totally at sea.  I tried to remember the details of Renard’s Trial, as the story was called.  For the life of me, I could not. 

The basic plot was that the King sent three animals to summon Reynard to court and the first two were tricked and maimed before the third brought him in.  At this point, Reynard got religion and repented, and the King sent him on crusade.  Reynard got halfway down the road before turning to mock, blaspheme, and run.  The next story in the series is The Siege of Maupertius.  Other than being the cause of the initial complaint, Hersent was not much involved in either story.

“Sir Bruyant,” said a badger/man, “we must not exaggerate this trouble . . .”

I did try to keep my mind on the proceedings.

“. . . it is not as if the receptacle has been damaged . . . “

Sometimes it was difficult.

“ . . . and you should be beaten if you ever show him any affection again.  Look at him!”
I was surprised when he indicated by husband.

“Isengrin.  He calls you ‘my dear’, but he drags you before us all in shame.  He deserves to be spurned!”

“Do not chide the Lady Hersent for loyalty to her husband, Sir Bumbert.”  The sly nun’s voice was soft, but it carried.  “Her husband and Reynard have been feuding for years and it is to her credit that she stands with him even though his mind is fevered with frustrated vengeance for other wrongs.

As regards her honor, why only in the hallway she was saying that she would willingly undergo an ordeal by scalding water or by fire to prove her fidelity.”

There was a murmur as all the creatures of forest and field approved of that as a noble gesture and possibly a very good idea.  I folded my hands at my waist and pondered my toes in a display of medieval modesty.  I prayed they’d stick to the next part of the script.

“And what would that profit me, good Sister Hermeline?” growled my husband, “except to make me richer by a burned wife?  I forbid it!”

I raised my palms and eyes in an I’ve-done-all-I-can-do-who-can-blame-me-for-giving-up gesture.  It was a mistake.  The sun and moon were out.  The constellations overlapped and the moon showed several phases.

[I know this story had a projected end.  I know that it hinged on something from The Trial of Reynard.  I suspect it required trial by ordeal to be valid in the animal’s world and for the main character to know some dirt on Sister Hermeling, so that she could swear that she no more blank than Sister Hermeline other blank. 

But that’s all there is in the folder and I don’t remember specifics.  Maddening, isn’t it.]

Monday, July 28, 2014

Fifty-Fourth Beginning: The End of the Stair

End of the Stair

. . . Lethilde felt the cold, polished hallway floor sting against her feet as she ran, panicked, through the shape-filled dark.  She heard the sharp sounds as her feet struck, heard beneath it the ragged sound of her own breathing, the beating of her heart, stumbling and afraid.  She did not waste perception on the sights in the unfamiliar hall, sights she knew by heart and would soon see again.  What Self she had she spent on slowing her feet, smothering the fear - - anything to keep from passing through the door at the end of the hallway, from what would come after . . .

. . . There was a sound above and Lethilde knew she had not been quick enough.  She hurried faster, clutching the remnants of her robes around her, feet flying down the carpeted stair, calves aching with unaccustomed exertion. One hand, seeking balance, brushed along the uneven, sometimes sharp stones of the outer wall. There was no inner wall, only a steep drop.
Lethilde felt her nose beginning to run and wondered if the steps would ever end. Surely she had come down far enough to reach ground level. Coldness twisted in her flesh as she wondered if the stair was spelled. This was a wizard's house. Could the stair be spelled to send strangers traveling round and round forever without moving at all between floors?
She heard an animal's whine and recognized it for a sound from her own throat. Then she saw the archway and hurried through it, terrified at her own imaginings.
Lethilde felt the cold, polished hallway floor sting against her feet as she ran, panicked, through the shape-filled dark. She heard the sharp sounds as her feet struck, heard beneath it the ragged sound of her own breathing, the beating of her heart, stumbling and afraid. She began to notice the pattern again and to hope that, like last time, she would be spared the sight of the thing at the bottom of the stair. A part of her withdrew as she raced along, tensed as her hand closed upon the doorlatch . . .
. . . The footsteps receded and Lethilde released her breath, thankful that whichever servant had passed had needed nothing in this supply alcove. Naked, she fumbled with the robe that she had grabbed, amazed that her hands shook so when she, herself, felt no anxiety. The robe was torn and rumpled and reeked with the fear she could not feel. She fastened it about herself as best she could. She listened carefully. Slowly and calmly she crept out of the alcove and down the carpeted stairs that ran in the tower down the side of the house.
Slowly she began to descend those stairs, listening as she went. Slowly she went and then faster and faster still, as the fear that had hidden, clenched in her bones, uncoiled itself to take her.
There was a sound above and Lethilde knew that she had not been quick enough. She hurried faster, clutching the remnants of her robes around her, feet flying down the carpeted, circular stair, calves aching with unaccustomed exertion. One hand, seeking balance, brushed along the uneven, sometimes sharp stones of the outer wall. There was no inner wall, only a steep drop.
Lethilde felt her nose beginning to run and wondered if the steps would ever end. Surely she had come down far enough to reach ground level.
Lethilde's Self stirred warily. Could the stair be spelled to send strangers traveling round and round forever? The pattern was edging her backward, further from the horror at the bottom of the tower, but that thought was not as comforting as it had been. She heard an animal's whine and recognized it for a sound from her own throat. Then she saw the archway and hurried through it, terrified.
The weight of unformed memory pressed and she shifted beneath it. She felt the cold, polished hallway floor sting against her feet. The memory centered on the stairway and she gave her perception to that. An image formed in the part of her mind that watched rather than ran. It was a symmetrical image - - a perfect helix with hallways at the top and bottom. She heard the sharp sounds as her feet struck, heard beneath it the ragged sound of her own breathing, the beating of her heart, stumbling and afraid. And at the end of the two hallways, two doors.
A panic rose within Lethilde's Self to match that of the self that ran. For if she was moving away from one door, she was moving toward the other . . . and both doors were closed on horror. Deep with herself, Lethilde began to scream. The scream grew to fill her senses, a rattling, grey scream that drowned out all other sound and then all sight, and then, mercifully, all sensation.
The blow across her cheek shocked Lethilde's eyes open and stopped her crying as suddenly and unexpectedly as a duck caught in a pond freeze. Her father's face swam into focus as she hiccoughed and sniffed. His expression was disdainful. It was a familiar expression. He handed her a handkerchief and turned pointedly to look out a window as she guiltily mopped her face into presentability.
At the window, her father smoothed his robes and beard and began to explain, with the obviously careful patience he used only when he felt himself to be speaking to one who, despite reasonable expectation, was behaving with the intelligence of a half-witted child. He explained again what he plainly thought would be obvious to all - - that a night, even a fortnight, spent with the son of the Wizard of Hilltower, was more than worth the price that man was willing to pay.
Still gazing out into the streets, he listed, one by one, her reasonable fears and, one by one, discounted them. Lethilde tensed, knowing that her fear was not a thing that could be named and banished, like a milk-sprite. Lethilde relaxed, recognizing this time as a relatively safe one.
Her father would win the argument, of course; had won it. She would be sent to Hilltower in a closed litter carried by two dark men and preceded by another man with a lantern. She turned her attention back to the man at the window. He was saying, matter-of-factly, that it was not as if she were a virgin or as if she were likely to marry, even young as she was, burdened, as she was, with a deformed bastard daughter. There was no trace of sarcasm or censure in his tone as he said this.
Lethilde let her perception waft back to her own actions. These consisted of tormenting a sodden handkerchief with both hands and trying to keep the breath from aching at the back of her throat as she tried, desperately, to construct some argument that would keep her from her fate. This being impossible, Lethilde let her perception wander. She could go through the motions well enough without attending. Her father's voice droned on.
A moment of silence caught her attention. She looked up to see her father looking at her expectantly. The moment extended. An answer was required but neither Lethilde nor her Self had one. It didn't matter. Wouldn't matter, Hadn't mattered.
"Well?" said her father, his hands clasped behind him in a scholar's pose. He considered himself to be a scholar, her father did, though others called him Deyron the Scribe and set him to copying contracts and business messages. He had named all her fears and patiently refuted each. Therefore any fear she still harbored was, by definition, irrational or, worse, willfully wrong-headed.
"Good," said her father, as if she had agreed, and her heart fell within her. "Good," he said, and her heart lightened, remembering that the talking was over. Deyron would construct her no more patient sentences of carefully, slowly chosen words. The was a right word for the expression of every thought, every sentiment, and Deyron, by his own admission, knew them all. He had, so he said, a natural way with words. There was a proper action for every situation. Deyron knew those as well, or could calculate them, given time and quiet.
That Deyron was constantly surrounded with idiots who could not see the proper action for their situation, and therefore acted differently, inconveniently, was Deyron's curse. That these idiot's actions imposed upon the time and quiet he needed to be sure of his own actions was his infuriation.
Lethilde was plainly in the wrong, plainly behaving improperly, and, therefore, plainly infuriating. Being his daughter, she had no excuse. She had had the advantage of his teaching.
Deyron turned, equally satisfied with the outcome and his own generous patience. Lethilde's perception drifted. It was time for supper, which would be eaten in tense silence. There was no point in wasting perception on this. It was not terrifying, but it was not comfortable. Best to think of other things. Everything here had already happened. Everything would happen again, with no help needed from her. Lethilde could not remember the Wizard's son's name. But until she entered his rooms there was nothing that could not be . . .
. . . though expected, the knocking was early. Supper was not yet finished. Deyron was plainly not pleased as he left the table. Lethilde's numbed fingers could neither raise her filled spoon to her lips nor set it back in the bowl. Her mind dulled. She could not decide which of these actions she should seek to accomplish, though it was important that she know. Her Mind cleared. Something had happened. There had been a jump.
Deyron returned, irritated, and began to explain something that Lethilde couldn't hear, hadn't heard, properly. He looked disgusted when the spoon fell from her hand with a splash and clatter. Lethilde saw that her hand hadn't moved . . .
. . . the rocking would have been soothing if her food weren't arguing with her stomach. There were no windows, just slots high up in the box, and those were covered with a fringe of tassels. It was dark and close but at least she was not required to move or speak or be looked upon.
There had been another jump. How was this happening? Was someone . . . she didn't want to think about that. There was a small lurch as the man to the rear of the litter stumbled . . .
. . . Lethilde was walking up a carpeted stair. Although she kept her eyes carefully on the stair, she knew that the old man drawing her along was watching closely, enjoying her. Somehow she had thought that anyone described as somebody's son would be young, but this was not true . . .
. . . "You blush so marvelously," was the sound, and the feel was of the backs of his fingers, loosely curled, stroking against her cheek. There was wine in the cup in her hands; she could smell it. It was stronger than the scent of her fear. She would drink it down to ease things if only her throat would open. Lethilde wondered how she could keep holding the cup. Her hands felt so limp and looked so dead.
The hand lifted and turned, fingers sliding down her neck, slowly, from ear to collar. He said other things. She did not attend, had not attended. Lethilde didn't remember, didn't wish to remember, what came next. Especially not jumping like this. Before there had been time to go as limp and dead as her hands. . . .
. . . The man was angry with her. He was pacing back and forth, punctuating his complaints with sudden sweeps of his arms. Lethilde saw him at the edge of her vision as she sank down into herself. Soon she would be small enough to hide, surrounded by a protective cocoon of unhurt, unfeeling flesh . . .
. . . eighty-three . . . eighty-four . . . eighty-five . . . What was this?
Oh, yes. The tapestry. She had counted the stitches in a white rose . . . eighty-nine . . . Her body must be somewhere. Such cold toes . . . ninety-three . . . It was easier than she expected . . . ninety-five . . . ti ignore it again. Poor body . . . ninety-eight . . . now there were two selves ignoring it . . . one hundred . . . And, counting the body, three selves ignoring him . . . hundred and three . . . Oh, yes, he's angry about that. I can hear him complain . . .
. . . The room comes back from far away. Lethilde is floating about her body. There are two of her floating, but one self cannot see the other, which is lonely. Meaning comes back to the shapes that become him drinking by the fire, his back to them. There must be somewhere else someplace if only she could think about wanting to be there . . .
. . . The footsteps receded and Lethilde released her breath, thankful that whichever servant had passed had needed nothing in this supply alcove. Naked, she fumbled with the robe . . .
. . . There was a sound above and Lethilde knew that she had not been quick enough. She hurried faster, clutching, one hand brushing along the uneven stones of the outer wall, the inner wall only a steep drop . . .
. . . the cold polished hallway floor stinging against her feet, she heard the sharp sounds . . at the end of two hallways: two doors.
Once again her hand closed upon the doorlatch. Once again her shoulder struck the sticking door. Once again it gave way suddenly. Once again she stumbled onto damp stone steps only to slip and fall - fall down and down, down onto symbols drawn in blood on a black glass floor - down into pain and roaring . . .
Lethilde gasped at the shock of being reconnected to her body. It felt as if she had been dropped into it, raw and naked and unfamiliar, from a height. She felt her hands on herself, felt the meaninglessness of the robe. She watcher her hands touching - arms, shoulders, face. She felt a panic at not being able to see her face, as if it might be missing if she could not see it. Was this a feeling of past panic that she could jump away from?
No. The panic belonged to this place and time, to this event that she would not be jumping away from. Not seeing her face was just the thought occupying the moment when the panic had returned. It was a normal thing. The panic belonged to the shapes in the center of the room, to the death that she felt swimming in her veins.
A large, grey shape, difficult to see in the dim room, lifted the limp form of a wizard. If this was the Wizard of Hilltower, he looked much younger than his son. He looked handsome and vital and merely asleep in a strange, lumpy chair. But the chair bent a noseless, mouthless face to the wizard's chest and, as Lethilde watched, the wizard aged.
Had he been dead? Was he dead now? There was no outcry, no moan or movement. Was there pain?
Slowly the wizard wrinkled and withered and began to collapse, as if hollow. Lethilde stepped back, bumping the stone wall behind her. A glance revealed no exit but the circling stairs that lay beyond - - that. She looked back. The wizard was a brittle, folded mass, small enough to hold in two hands . . one hand.
The chair straightened. The wizard was now a handful of crumbling dust, drifting down the chair's - the demon's front. He was certainly dead now. Lethilde was the double circle of symbols that the wizard had used to summon and contain the demon. The inner one was smeared.
"Why? Can't you pull that from my mind, too?" Lethilde's voice was a small, dry croak in the echoing dark.
"You eat master."
"No. Hush and let me think." Lethilde tried to remember what had happened since the stair. If felt strange to be going through her memories alone, after the demon's rifling. Her mind felt bruised.
The stair seemed the most real thing in her memory. At the top things had happened, unavoidable things, things she didn't want to think about. At the bottom . . . what? She had fallen. She had smudged the wizard's circle. Had she? It seemed so. But how had she smudged only the inner circle? How had she come to be outside the circles and across the room?
Had she walked through that wide, intricate outer circle, the demon would have been released into her world. But the demon was still trapped. She tried again to remember. There was the fall, the landing. With the landing came pain and noise. Slowly the memory came, but it was a vague and dim thing next to the scenes the demon had pulled through her.
In the memory, the demon roared in triumph and hatred and reared above her, terrifying and indistinct. The wizard roared in anger and contempt, handsome eyes icy. As the demon lunged, the wizard turned, his hands flaring. Lethilde had been thrown across the room by the bolt, had felt the death of his spell enter her and curl, larval and waiting. She remembered one other thing as well: looking into a demon's eyes is a mistake.
"No. Wait. Can you undo the wizard's spell, the one that's killing me?"
"No." The thought of the demon loose in the town was unbearable, the final obscenity of a hideous night. She had not actively cooperated with the other. She would resist this, too.
The demon did not seem troubled. Perhaps, being a demon, he could not be troubled. Perhaps it showed differently. Perhaps . . . Lethilde looked at the blood of the circles. It had been arranged as plump little puddles, puddles that were beginning to dry. Perhaps the demon could cross a circle of dried blood. Perhaps it only needed to wait.
"I release you," Lethilde croaked.
Lethilde groaned. She was beginning to shiver. She had been unable to forestall her father or the so-named son upstairs. How could she forestall a demon?
"If I ask and you give and I say . . . say . . 'I release you, return from whence you came,' would you have to go?"
There was a shuffling and a smoldering.
Lethilde sat down to think. Presently: "Does giving information count?"
"What is behind you there?"
"I know. Just answer."
"What is on the workbench? List everything and what it does."
Lethilde only half listened to the sorcerous recitation. As she had suspected, most of the information was meaningless to her. The demon's voice boomed brokenly on and on as her insides shifted warmly. The floor was getting colder. It was so hard to feel the words. How was she going to find a way to . .
"What was that?"
"Show me." A dusty bottle, plain as a vinegar bottle, drifted over to bob before her face. Within swam three blue lights, smaller than fireflies. "Explain how the wishes work."
The demon was too pleased with this. There had to be something wrong with it. Something wrong, and thinking was so hard - so very hard to do. Lethilde couldn't feel her hands or her feet. Don't think about that. Think about what would please a demon. Oh, yes. Wishes cause trouble if not wished properly. All the old stories said so. And if she died before she used them all, she could be leaving the demon with a wish.
Lethilde reached drooping fingers toward the bottle, then paused. The wizard hadn't used the wishes.
"Is the bottle spelled?" There was a long pause.
"What will the bottle do if I open it?"
Oh, yes. But there were breakings and breakings. "Killing me?" There was a longer pause. Above, the voices of the son and servants murmured in an unimportant froth of concern. They had found her gone, evidently, found the open door above. They did not sound like they were coming down.
"Can you open the bottle in such a way that I get the wishes but an not hurt?"
Was the demon arguing. Lethilde could not argue. Could not afford to. She had lost every argument she had ever been part of in her life. Don't think of that. Fingernails were beginning to curl back like drying leaves, lips to droop and drool. Take a breath and concentrate on the words or they won't come out right.
"I command you to open the bottle in such a way that I get the wishes but am not harmed and I command you to be gone to whence you came as soon as this is done."
A roar of demonic rage echoed through the castle. Lethilde heard it flinging itself, panting and growling, against its bonds. Definitely an argument. She had nothing to fight with - had never had anything to fight him with.
"I command." It was foolish to repeat it. Foolish to waste her energy making the words. But there was nothing better to think about and many things to forget.
"I comman'."
The silence as the threefold command took effect was painful to the ears. Lethilde saw the blood of the circles begin to glow and shrink inward. She wondered vaguely what would happen to the demon if it hadn't completed its task by the time the circles shrank to its size. It was a think she was never to learn.
The bottle quickly floated far up over her head, mouth downward, and exploded outward in a tearing pulse of orange light and glass shards. The shards rained and bounced in the dark glass room, pinging gaily, as the floor beneath the demon turned molten, allowing it to dive in and disappear a moment before the circle clenched.
Thoughts came slowly. Over. No. The wishes. The son. Lethilde could imagine him with the wishes. She tried to wish for three glasses of water to use them up, but she could not speak, could no longer sit up. She sprawled sideways as the three small lights floated in a swirl before her eyes.
At least she had banished the demon. Over, now. No more trying. Relax. Ignore this. Think of Ella. Little Ella curled in her basket by the hearth. Little Ella with her club foot. Over.
One of the blue lights expanded, shaped itself into an image of a toddler, curled in a basket. Over. A toddler who could not toddle. Over. No. Not over.
Not over? Tired as she was, Lethilde had a vague feeling that it was not over.
No. I'm tired. Think of Ella. Think of Ella and die quietly. I'm tired.
Think of Ella.
Lethilde thought of Ella and slowly thought of what Ella would look like with two straight legs. She thought of Ella walking . .. and wished.
The light puffed itself out, unraveling into the wish. Lethilde let it go and was glad.
Two more. No. So tired. Think of Ella. Think of Ella living in a town where that up the stairs had two wishes. So tired. A glass of water? No. Think of Ella. Ella with father.
Lethilde thought of a wife for her father, a mother for Ella, and other children for her to play with. She thought of this with a vague sense of financial ease. She wished before the image was clear, hurrying, and the wish raveled away.
So tired. But as the end came there was a sudden sense of desperation, an urgent need to do the last wish properly. Lethilde felt herself wishing without knowing what for, as if the wish were trapped inside her, fighting to get out.
The last light formed an image of Ella. The image grew, changing. Her daughter was growing up without her, would never remember her.
Lethilde wished her last wish as her eyes closed, thinking the words that she could not say, for she could think of no way to form an image of what she wanted.
"I want my daughter to know that I love her, that I'm thinking of her. I want to see her grown and know that she knows that I love her."
Lethilde felt her body drop away, felt herself float upward. She thought of seeing and sight came. Below her something huge spread and ran amid the tatters of an impossibly large, ruined robe. Someone else's problem, now. Within her was an urgency. Examining it, she laughed, though a twinkle is the only laugh a wish can give. Floating, she hurried homeward, not noticing the panic she caused in the hallway.
Some wishes last a long time. She would last until her daughter was grown, embedded in her father's hearth, an unknown source of love and comfort. Everything would be fine, now. No more arguments. Everything would be fine.
Deyron looked up from his manuscript when the baby stopped crying, pulling a thick layer of justified satisfaction over the small guilt he felt, smothering it utterly. He blinked to see the small, blue light dancing before the child's eyes.
Good. Lethilde had finally seen her duty and had pleased the wizard's son sufficiently to be rewarded with this small bit of minor magic. Things were working exactly as he had planned, exactly as they ought. Everything would be fine, now. There would be no more arguments. Everything would be fine.